House finches and purple finches have become a favorite of birders and people who have bird feeders installed in their backyard. But making the difference between them can sometimes be tricky, especially since house finches don’t live in houses and purple finches aren’t even purple.
What are the differences between a purple finch vs house finch? Telling one from the other is easy and in today’s article, we invite you on a fun journey packed with house and purple finch facts.
Purple finch vs. house finch
Both purple and house finches can be found across North America, and both prefer habitats that are coniferous. While there are a wide variety of finch types that exist in the world, these two are among the most common ones in the US and Canada.
Moreover, the purple finch has gradually become less common in the Eastern parts of the continent as the house finch outcompetes it. When the house sparrow is added to the mix, the purple finch population declines even more.
The main difference between a house finch and purple finch is their coloring. Even though they have a similar size and weight, the male house finch has a red to orange tint on its head, whereas the male purple finch has a reddish-purple color on most of its body.
The females differ too, even though to an untrained eye, they can look very similar. Female purple finches have dark cheek patches and a white streak over their eyes — something that you aren’t going to find in female house finches.
How long do finches live? Both species have an average life span of 11 years, but it can go up to 14 years.
What do house finches eat compared to their purple counterparts? Well, there aren’t too many differences in this respect as both species prefer sunflower seeds and sunflower meats, and neither has a problem with visiting finch feeders to get the energy they need.
Songs and sounds
How can you make the difference between a common house finch and a purple finch song? Unfortunately, the sounds that both of these species make are quite similar. However, their call notes do differ, and they can be used to distinguish a house finch vs purple finch.
The purple finch’s call note is softer and resembles a ‘pik’ or a ‘tek’. On the other hand, the house finch’s call is louder and also longer, and it resembles a ‘chirp’.
Male purple finches have three types of songs – an up-and-down cadence that touches 2 to 5 notes, a warbling song, which is fast and rising and encompasses up to 23 different notes, but also a territory song, which they usually sing alone. Females usually sing a warbling song that lasts for up to 2 minutes.
The song pallet of house finches is limited to a warbling song composed of short notes and that can last for up to 3 seconds. Females’ songs are even shorter. Compared to purple finches, house finches sound rougher and less melodic. The call note can be abrupt and sharp and can sometimes sound like a ‘cheep’. It’s common for house finches to make this sound even as they fly.
Size and shape
When it comes to body shape and size, there aren’t too many differences between a house finch bird and a purple finch. However, the first is usually more slender compared to the second, and they will also have a more sizable head.
As is the case with most other species, the male house finch tends to be a little bigger compared to the female house finch. However, purple finches are a little larger than their counterparts in both genders. The size of both types of birds can be difficult to assess, especially if they are seen from a distance.
House finches are equipped with flat and long heads and sizable beaks. They have short wings and a shallow-notched tail.
Purple finches are stocky and have a distinguishably more notched tail. They have conical and pointed bills.
When it comes to their shape, there are also differences in terms of house finch eggs and purple finch eggs. The first is speckled and a little pointy at one end, whereas the second is rounder and doesn’t have any spots on their surface.
Purple finch eggs measure 0.7 to 0.9 inches in length and have a width of 0.5 to 0.6 inches. House finch eggs measure 0.6 to 0.8 inches in length and have the same width as purple finch eggs.
Color patterns and variations
What bird looks like a sparrow but has a red head? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, you probably saw an adult male house finch. But there are several significant differences in terms of finch colors between the two species.
House finches are red or red-orange and the color is usually limited to their heads and their upper chest. The rest of the body can be anything from orange and yellow to light brown. If you have spotted a red breasted finch in your backyard, it’s likely for it to have been a house finch.
What color is a purple finch? These little birds have a body that’s almost rosy or pink in its entirety. It somewhat resembles rose wine. They also have intense shades of red on their chest, back, their crown and nape, but also their flanks and cheeks.
What does a finch look like when it’s young? Male purple and house finch babies resemble adult females in that they haven’t developed their red or pink coloring yet. Most do around the age of 1 year.
Distinguishing a female purple finch from a female house finch is a little trickier. While they have the same colors on their bodies, the female house finch is mostly brown and displays some white feathers on her back and sides. By contrast, a purple finch from the same gender has white streaks at the bottom of her cheeks and over the eyes.
In short, a finch with red head is a house finch, whereas a finch that’s red or rosy on most of its body is a purple finch (for males).
A red head finch, so a house finch is active throughout the day. These birds are not territorial, but they do tend to live together in flocks. In terms of house finch nesting habits, they tend to nest close together along with the rest of their community. The females are often dominant over the males.
Do house finches migrate? It depends on where they live. Residents of the East usually don’t, but those in the West can move to lower elevations during the cold season.
Purple finches are migratory, so they travel south to the Eastern parts of the United States when the cold comes to Canada and the West coastal regions of the US. They are particularly social during the winter when they form flocks composed of up to 200 birds.
In their breeding season, purple finches can be very territorial, so they mostly live alone or with their pair. When breeding season comes along, males sing almost constantly to attract the attention of females.
Besides their physical appearance, you can make the difference between house finches and purple finches based on how they behave. While the first are almost always social, the second will feed and live alone from spring to fall.
How do you tell what type of finch you have in your backyard based on where you live? The habitat of these two species has changed a lot over the years. In areas where they both reside, the purple finch is effectively competing with the house finch, so it doesn’t really thrive.
Purple finches have lost approximately 90% of their territorial interactions due to high numbers of house finches. They have, therefore, been excluded from regions where they used to be found in the past.
In general, purple finches can be found in less disturbed habitats, meaning you aren’t going to find a purple finch nest in a town or around it as often. Purple finches live year-round along the Pacific coast and in the Great Lakes region and in the Northern parts of Canada’s forests. They prefer orchards, parklands, and evergreen forests.
House finches live in the continental parts of the United States and along the Canadian border, and they do so yearlong. Most don’t migrate from these areas unless the weather is really bad. A red headed finch can be found in small conifers, but in many urban centers, too. In the West, they live in dry desert and oak savannas.
So, if you live close to a city, it’s quite likely that the only type of finch you’re going to see is the house finch.
Field identification tips
What do finches look like out in the wild and what details can you use to your advantage when it comes to finch identification?
The main difference between a purple finch and house finch is the color, especially the color of the head and chest in males.
Male house finches are often gray, brown, or yellow to light orange throughout the rest of their body except their head and chest. Even the lightest colored purple finch is more boldly marked than a house finch.
The shape and proportion of the species is another factor that will assist you in distinguishing between them.
Purple finches have:
- A triangular crest on their heads
- A shorter tail with a clear notch at the tip
- A short and strong bill (straight culmen)
- Heavier, stocky-looking body
- No streaks on its flanks
House finches have:
- A smooth, round head
- A longer tail with equally sized feathers
- A short bill (curved culmen)
- A smaller and thinner body
- Streaks on its flanks (right below its wings)
So, as a recap, what does the purple finch look like compared to the house finch? The male bird has a pink or rosy red tint on the surface of its whole body, while the male house finch has orange-red feathers only on its head, chest, and shoulders.
Female purple finches have white markings on a generally gray to the brown body, whereas female house finches have a muted gray brown coloration without any streaks or markings.